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Actor who played Jimmy Chitwood in 'Hoosiers' made the most of his one big shot

CROWE'S NEST

Maris Valainis, 47 and now living in Southland, is still recognized from his portrayal of the player who made the winning jumper in the 1986 film, one of the most beloved sports movies of all time. The Indiana native's acting career was short-lived, but his cinematic basket is immortal.

April 04, 2010|Jerry Crowe

The man who made perhaps the most famous shot in cinematic hoops history never played high school basketball.

"I tried out three years in a row," Maris Valainis says, "and I got cut three years in a row."

But as Jimmy Chitwood in the venerated 1986 film "Hoosiers," Valainis calmly sinks the game-winning jumper to give the Hickory High Huskers the 1952 Indiana state title.

Movie fans haven't forgotten.

Valainis says he's still recognized from his portrayal of Chitwood, whose shy, reserved personality is similar to his own.

"When I'm playing, yes," says Valainis, whose picture-perfect shooting form can still be seen in Southland pickup games, "and when I'm out sometimes too.

"If I'm in a social situation, I'll get a lot of, ‘You look really familiar to me.' And then finally someone will figure it out, which is amazing to me that 25 years later people would remember.

"But I guess it was pretty popular."

In fact, "Hoosiers" ranked 13th on the American Film Institute's list of America's most inspirational movies. USA Today readers voted it the best sports movie of all time and a 2008 AFI poll of 1,500 artists, scholars, critics and historians placed "Hoosiers" fourth in a ranking of greatest sports films behind "Raging Bull," "Rocky" and "The Pride of the Yankees."

It seems to be especially popular among basketball lovers.

Valainis, 47, says that even NBA players have done double takes when meeting him. One was Kobe Bryant, leading to a round of golf with the Lakers star. George Steinbrenner once told the filmmakers he'd seen "Hoosiers" about 250 times.

The movie's David-vs.-Goliath tale, inspired by the true story of a small-town team from Milan High winning the 1954 Indiana state championship, obviously resonates with viewers.

"As kids growing up in Indiana, we all knew the Milan story," Valainis says during an interview outside a coffee house in Redondo Beach. "I had a friend that had a Super-8 version of the final game, and we'd sit around and watch it."

Valainis' character is based on Bobby Plump, who in 1954 made the championship-winning shot for Milan.

But Valainis, though portraying the star player, was not the star of the movie, which featured Gene Hackman in the lead role, supported by Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper.

Valainis speaks only four lines.

"I got something to say," he says as Chitwood, addressing a gathering of townspeople intent on ousting Coach Norman Dale, Hackman's character. "I don't know if it'll make any change, but I figure it's time for me to start playing ball."

Then, after announcing his return to the team after a self-imposed exile, Chitwood adds, "There's one other thing: I play, coach stays; he goes, I go."

In the climactic scene, shot at Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse, Chitwood wears a pained look as Dale sets him up as a decoy on the final play, finally telling the coach, "I'll make it."

Moments later, he does.

"What you see is what actually happened," Indiana-born director David Anspaugh says on the DVD release of the movie. "Maris hits it on the first pop."

Valainis was a Purdue student in 1985, spending the summer at home in Indianapolis, when a "Hoosiers" casting director spotted him playing basketball and asked him to audition.

Showing up at an open call the next day, he stood last in a line of about 600 would-be actors and was about to leave until the casting director noticed him and pulled him inside.

"I dribbled a few times, shot a few shots," Valainis says, "and he says, ‘Why don't you come down tomorrow and read some lines?' If I wouldn't have walked in when I did and he wouldn't have walked out when he did, I wouldn't be sitting here."

Valainis, nearly 6 feet 3, isn't exactly sure why he landed the role but notes, "It was probably a look more than anything, and I could play halfway decently, I guess."

During shooting, Valainis says he was bitten by the acting bug. Encouraged by Hackman, he moved to California after the movie wrapped to pursue a career in front of the camera.

But after landing small roles in films starring Sean Penn, Michael J. Fox and George Clooney, he walked away.

"I enjoyed it — when I got work," says Valainis, a construction consultant who lives in Costa Mesa with wife Sheri and their two young daughters. "I don't think people realize how talented these actors are and how much work goes into it.

"Maybe at the time, being so naïve and having something almost handed to me, I maybe took it for granted a little bit. It'll eat you up if you do that. You can't take it for granted."

A former scratch golfer who walked on to the golf team at Purdue but didn't make it into matches, Valainis worked in golf-course management before landing his current job.

But he'll be known forever, of course, as Jimmy Chitwood.

"I remember the director saying right before we started filming, ‘Just remember when that camera's rolling, you've got to give 110% because it's going to be on film forever,' " Valainis says. "We all took that to heart, and I think it really showed up."

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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